A Sermon on Matthew 20:1-16 & Exodus 16: 2-15 by Nathan Nettleton
By nature, I am a success junkie. Succeeding at what I undertake, or at least maintaining the appearance of success is far more important to me than is really healthy. To those of you who know me well, this is not news at all, and those of you who don’t, well if you were to come across a book on the Enneagram personality profile and look up “type number 3”, I’m a classic case. All is well in my little world if I am achieving goals and being applauded for my accomplishments. Unfortunately, the applause matters. I have trouble enjoying my own achievements without the recognition of others. I have a hunger to be patted on the back and told that I’ve done great and told how much my contribution is worth to everyone else. I like to be singled out for special thanks and commended for outstanding achievement.
So the parable we heard from Jesus in tonight’s gospel reading gets right up my nose. It rubs me up the wrong way. It offends me. And of course it was supposed to.
You don’t have to be a success junkie like me to be offended by this parable — it is actually capable of offending most people who have been reared on the values of our society — but as a success junkie, it strikes close to my most vulnerable and sensitive spot. It tells me that no matter how hard I work, no matter how much I achieve, and no matter how spectacular my accomplishments, God will regard bludgers and morons and losers as being worth just as much as me. There will be no extra bonuses, no special commendations, no citations of special merit. I will enter heaven to no greater applause than those who scraped in by the skin of their teeth and never put in a hard day’s work in their lives.
I could translate the entire Bible into idiomatic Australian and cause a revolution in Biblical awareness among the Australian people, but in heaven I will still be ranked equal with the idiots who argue that the King James Version was God’s final and perfect self-revelation. I could renew the practice and integrity of worship across the entire world family of Baptist Churches, but in heaven I will still be ranked equal with those who gladly hold worship services without bread and wine or scripture readings but would have no idea how to worship if the electricity went off. Even if I was to single handedly turn the tide of public opinion on the compassionate treatment of asylum seekers and proper respect for the culture and rights of marginalised minority groups, in heaven I will still find myself ranked equal with people who supported and implemented mandatory detention, the removal of aboriginal children from their families, the stoning of homosexuals, and the bombing of Iraq back into the stone age.
There will be no additional reward, no place of special honour, no elevation to the roll of renown. And I have to confess that I can’t quite share Paul’s eagerness to depart and be with Christ without delay (Philippians 1:21-30), because I am still a long way from coping well with the prospect of being an eight hour worker and seeing the one hour workers treated as my equals. Were it to happen tonight, my lack of special rewards would leave me feeling ripped off. I would arrive ungratefully and with my nose as much out of joint as the whinger at the end of the parable.
I suspect I’m not alone in this. You don’t have to be a success junkie to have people who you would be horrified to see treated as your equals. We have all been raised in a society that is forever ranking people in order on some criteria or another and rewarding those who come out ahead, or punishing those who fail to meet a certain standard. It is so much a part of our normal way of thinking and doing things that we take it for granted and do it without even thinking about it. We aspire to achieve the standards of those ahead of us, and console ourselves with the knowledge that we have never stooped to the depths of some of those behind us. Much of our image of ourselves is bound up in where we see ourselves positioned in the pack; that is on comparing ourselves to others. And we are used to the world reading us the same way and rewarding us accordingly. Those who put in the most effort and produce the most receive the promotions, the accolades, and the bonus cheques. We know that the world does not always work that way, and it grates on us. We regard it as an injustice. Nurses should make more money than fashion models. Child protection workers should make more money than stockbrokers. We live in an economy where everything and everyone is given a monetary value and people are supposedly paid more or less depending on what they are worth, and we are so accustomed to thinking in these terms that even the obvious anomalies don’t undermine our faith in the idea that the principle is still correct. When Jesus tells this story to explain that the culture of God is not like that, it sounds like a monstrous injustice and we want to call the unions in.
The point Jesus was making was not an altogether new idea. In a different context, we heard of God behaving the same way in our first reading. During the years that the Hebrew people spent wandering in the wilderness before arriving at the promised land, the story tells us that God provided food for them in the form of a flock of quail landing in their camp at night, and a layer of manna appearing on the ground with the dew in the morning. Although the quail was probably the more appetising, it is the manna that has always captured people’s imaginations, probably because it was more mysterious and unknown. In fact, the name “manna” basically meant “What’s this stuff?” But the point was that it was all about God providing for what everyone needed, and not allowing anyone to try to get ahead of anyone else. If you went out in the morning and worked twice as hard to gather twice as much as you needed, to try and get ahead, it would go putrid on you and you’d be left with nothing. Trying to gather extra was seen as both an insulting vote of no-confidence in God’s ability to keep providing enough each day, and as an insulting attempt to outdo your neighbours. The manna was a sign of God’s generosity to all, not an opportunity to try to get ahead of others, even those we regard as lazy or unproductive or unworthy.
But we are addicted to our hierarchies of merit, and we want God to honour them and reward us accordingly. You can see why the idea of Purgatory became popular in the middle ages. We want those who were not as dedicated and conscientious as us, and those who did appalling and evil things which we would never have dreamed of doing to be made to pay for it before they are welcomed into the love of God. But that’s not the way it will be according to Jesus. Everybody who enters the Realm of God, will be welcomed with open arms and be equally rewarded. All will be treated as being of equal worth. The good conscientious churchgoers, and the tireless human rights workers, and the teachers who keep doing their best as their resources are cut to the bone, and the office workers who cheerfully do unpaid overtime when things are tough to help the company through, and the rich kids who’ve run off with their inheritance and are seeing out their days smoking dope on the beaches in Bali, and the corrupt executives who bankrupt billion dollar public companies while paying themselves million dollar bonuses, and the politicians who whip up racist sentiment and demonise refugees for electoral gain. How could this be? What kind of God is this who would treat us all as being of equal worth? Where is the justice? Where is the good news?
Well actually, if I stop looking behind me for a moment, this is incredibly good news. Unbelievably good news. So long as we can get out of our life-time habit of needing to be recognised as more worthy than others, then this is mind-bogglingly good news. You see, in the story Jesus told, the workers who put in the full eight hour shift did not have their pay cut to make them equal with those who only worked an hour. Those who only worked an hour were paid as though they had done the lot. And I don’t know about you, but I know that on any scale of worthiness, I’m not at the top. I may not be a one hour bludger, but I’m not the greatest saint since mother Mary either. And so what this story is actually promising me, is that I am going to be treated far far better than I deserve. It is telling me that God is so gracious that I will be received into heaven with all the applause and reward due to a Desmond Tutu or Dorothy Day or John Saunders. You and I will be welcomed as though our lives were worth as much as those of Mary of Magdala or Francis of Assisi or Brigit of Kildare. We will be rewarded as richly as if our godly achievements had been the equal of those of Hildegard of Bingen or Oscar Romero or John Bunyan. In fact, having been baptised into union with Christ Jesus, we will find that we are joint heirs with Christ, and receive the reward due to one who laid down his life for the world.
At this table we join hands with the most extraordinary saints and the most appalling sinners, to be fed with the mysterious bread of heaven and to be reshaped as the one body of Christ. And if we can just get over our hangups about being seen as equal members of one body with the appalling sinners, we might be overwhelmed with gratitude and able to really let our hair down and celebrate the astonishing grace, the outrageous generosity of God, that allows us to stand in the Realm of God as the equals of history’s most extraordinary saints.